GOWANUS — Talk about precious cargo.
How do you get a fragile $400,000 painting on crumbling stucco ready for a bumpy shipment from New York to Italy?
You call Serett Metal Works, a Gowanus metal-smithing shop that specializes in oddball requests such as restoring 16th-century iron fences and crafting custom staircases for the likes of Woody Allen. The shop also helps artists such as Kiki Smith and Duke Riley make sculptural pieces.
Serett was recently tasked with stabilizing a painting by Banksy, the controversial British street artist who scrawls politically charged messages on buildings around the globe. Some call it vandalism, but collectors have paid more than $1 million for his pieces.
The piece at Serett, known as "Out of Bed Rat," was painted on a Los Angeles wall in 2002. It was hacked off the building at some point and put up for sale for $400,000 by Keszler Gallery in Southampton.
The gallery could not be reached immediately for comment on the final sale price and the buyer, but whoever shelled out for the piece wants it shipped to Italy, said Serett Metal Works owner Josh Young.
Moving paintings on canvas is a relative cinch — you just take the canvas off its stretcher, roll it up, and away you go. Not so for a mural painted on what Young described as "an old crappy wall" that was "about to fall apart."
Before being shipped across the ocean, the work needed to be made strong enough to endure the trip. Asking the artist for advice was unfortunately out of the question, because Banksy keeps his identity a secret.
So Young took what he called a "nerve-wracking gamble" and spent three weeks preparing the delicate piece for a voyage on the high seas during which it could be hoisted by cranes and shoved around on forklifts.
"I was a little reluctant, because if anything goes wrong, it's a major lawsuit," Young said. "It would kill me. I would never be able to get insurance in this town again."
When the painting arrived at Serett, the right side was bulging and sagging, and a hairline crack had formed about a foot from the base.
Young and his team peeled off rotten, termite-ridden plywood and drywall until only a layer of stucco three-quarters of an inch thick was left. The process was painstaking.
At one point Young and three other workers spent four days removing nails from the piece. It took a steady hand, because one false wiggle could crack the "incredibly weak" stucco, Young said.
The job was complicated by the fact that the painting was face down while Young and his team were working on it, so they couldn't see whether they were damaging the front.
Next they made a new backing for the stucco out of laminated plywood and about 10 gallons of glue that took eight days to dry. The whole piece was then bolted to metal I-beams and affixed to a metal sheet.
By Thursday, the valuable artwork was nearly ready to ship, and Young said it was strong enough to be knocked around by cranes and fork lifts.
Young said some moments in the restoration process were tense, but he tried to maintain a positive outlook.
"You've just got to have the attitude that if it cracks, that's what happens," Young said. "You actually do better work when you're not totally freaked out."